The first Santa Fe's Historic Preservation ordinance was established in the late 1950s to define "Santa Fe Style" in what is today known as the downtown and east side historic districts. In the 1980s, officials expanded historic districts to include the residential bungalows of South Capitol, the industrial grit and innovation of Guadalupe Street and others. It falls on the tiny Historic Preservation Division to process hundreds of applications each year for construction and renovation in the districts and support the citizen Historic Design Review Board. Longtime preservation officer David Rasch left his job in August, and now senior planner and acting officer Nicole Ramirez Thomas is stepping down to move away from her hometown with her husband, who got a new job in Lake Tahoe. SFR caught up with her ahead of her Nov. 9 departure from City Hall. Our interview is edited for length and clarity.
Why is it important for the city to enforce the historic districts?
Santa Fe is one of the oldest cities in the United States, and for that reason the archaeology districts and the historic districts exist. The intention is to visually describe to anybody living in or visiting Santa Fe what the history is. I think that Santa Fe has done a really good job, actually, of nurturing and care for it. The downtown and east side is sometimes described as a Disneyland, because of this early-20th century architectural style that developed after statehood. But that style unto itself is historic and was meant to commemorate the trifecta of cultures: the Euro-American people coming to settle here at that time, and Native culture and Hispanic cultures.
What people tend to know about the historic districts is that you can't paint your house a certain color or that you have to get permission to change anything. Is that what it does?
There are two different standards: The design standards are intended to preserve the integrity of the overall neighborhood of the district. The preservation standards apply only to contributing, significant and landmark buildings, and those are intended to preserve material and styles that are 50 years or older. There has been some restrictiveness in how the code has been administered, and I think everybody in the city is looking for relief from that, but not to the extent that it compromises the integrity of any of these districts. … There is virtually no restriction on color of trim and paint and things like that. A lot of other historic districts actually really describe a palette that they think is part of something. But here, we celebrate color, and that is really where you get the opportunity of expression. Things that are predominately required to be earth tone are in the east side and downtown historic districts.
Do you find the phrase "keeping it brown and round" offensive?
[Laughs] I don’t. “Earth tone” is often taken as brown, but there are variety of earth tones. And then round, I guess is referring to the lack of crisp edges. And so I think that’s funny. Most of the things that people think about the historic districts are pretty funny. The board is sometimes called the Hysterical Board, and they’re actually wonderfully dedicated volunteers that spend a significant amount of time working to preserve the city.
Are there revisions that are necessary for the code to function more effectively in the future?
I don’t think that anybody would say that the city’s is a good, straightforward, easy-to-interpret kind of Land Use Code. So within that, the historic districts code is a small portion, and it does need a revision. … We’re always looking 50 years into the past to figure out what needs to be preserved and what style we’re trying to evaluate. And that 50-year mark ticks up. Right now we’re at 1969. People are like, ‘I don’t want aluminum storefront windows.’ They’re too close to that material. I think that what we really need to be doing is looking 50 years into the future and thinking about what we want Santa Fe to look like and what we want to preserve, and then honor some of the styles that were introduced a different times, so that we don’t have any stagnancy.
When you started working at the division you were a senior planner, and then in August you also inherited the job of interim supervising planner/historic preservation officer when David Rasch left. What's your understanding of what comes next for the division?
I had the great benefit of learning quite a bit from David Rasch. … It took some time and some deliberate work on David’s part. And unfortunately, I don’t have the opportunity to pass that on to a successor. … There is definitely more staff support needed. We really, really need to develop a context for the historic districts, so that we can do better planning and create more efficiency in how people interact with our office. I think that will go a long way, but it might be a little while before we get that. The context is a planning document that allows you to evaluate what you have and where you want go. … The year before last we actually received a grant from the state, a certified local government grant, to help start creating the context, but then our office was moved from upstairs to downstairs and we didn’t get to execute it.
So the city got a grant, and never used it, and then gave the money back?
Yes. That was just part of the challenge of changes at the city.
I just hope that especially now with this vacuum, this little vacuum, that the community becomes re-engaged and remembers their love for the heart of Santa Fe. Other economic development needs to occur in the city as well, but let’s not forget the heart of the city.